The right to vote, freedom of speech and religion, and equality under the law, are all considered fundamental civil rights. Freedoms that most Americans would consider universal to all citizens. But according Samantha Shattuck, access to a clean environment is just an essential. Shattuck is environmental justice advocate, a little-known area in the realm of conservation, which advocates access for all citizens to live in clean, healthy communities. “Environmental justice is not just an aspect of disparate exposure or green space, or to healthy foods,” she says. “It’s a racial justice issue as well.”
Originally from Sacramento, Shattuck did her undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, majoring in environmental studies and U.S. history, and doing fieldwork studying pesticide exposure to migrant farmers in Veracruz, Mexico. After graduating with master’s in environmental justice from the University of Michigan, Shattuck is currently the co-chair of the Youth Perspectives on Climate Change, a workgroup under the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), which advises the Environmental Protection Agency. Her current work involves youth engagement on climate change and assessing the impact of industries on community health.
After just a few minutes of speaking to her, you can tell how passionately Shattuck believes in her work. We met at a coffee shop and spoke at length on how America’s history has shaped the environmental health of minority communities and the future of the EPA.
Chris Anderson: What inspired you to go into the scientific field, specifically environmentalism, while at the same time working for racial justice?
Samantha Shattuck: I think coming from California that you are more inclined than not to be an environmentalist with the culture there, but I was fortunate enough to go to a high school in a small community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. I’d go swimming in the river after school, go on hikes, and I was in the environmental club in high school. For me, just a natural love for the environment brought me to understand the benefits.
I’ve always been into politics, too. I remember arguing with my dad in 7th grade about the death penalty. We were working class and lived in a neighborhood that was quite diverse; my neighbors were East Indian, my best friends were Latino and African American. So I always sort of clung to the idea that really, fundamentally, we’re all the same and everyone deserves an equal shake.
I consider myself one of the luckiest people to have had that experience early on and I think that tied my interest in the environment with action. Environmentalism isn’t just about loving nature, but it’s also about protecting it. I thought this is how I want to engage, through activism.
CA: How would you define environmental justice?
SS: A lot of people maybe don’t know this, but the environmental justice movement came out of the civil rights movement in the early 1970s’s. It started in Warren County, North Carolina when contaminated soil was going to be put in a dump next to a black community. The people didn’t want it there; it wasn’t from their community, it wasn’t benefiting them, they were just going to have to deal with it and suffer the negative consequences. So using nonviolent protests, they laid down in from the of the trucks carrying the dirt to their community.
I mention that because first and foremost, EJ is a racial justice issue. It highlights disparities experienced through environmental health. So it really is all about disparate impact. A really pertinent example where we could have used more of those principles was with the Dakota Access Pipeline. The local tribes were saying there wasn’t enough engagement with them; that the health risks in building the pipeline underneath the lake weren’t adequately considered or if they were considered they weren’t adequately weighed against the benefits. There were some information meetings, but (the tribes) weren’t engaged in the decision making. So when you thinking about environmental justice, you need to engage all communities members in the planning process all the way through operations and monitoring.
CA: America we are a unique country in that our population is made up of many different ethnicities. We also have a unique history in how those groups have participated or have been excluded from our democracy. How has that history of the United States impacted how environmental disparities are based on race?
SS: What we do know is that we have a history of discrimination in the United States. Practices like segregation and redlining have helped contribute to our communities being isolated and racially homogeneous.
So if you are a company, are you going to dump pollution in a community that has enough wealth that can make political contributions and economic impact or communities that are largely excluded from positions of power? Or are you going to dump it a community that’s so overburdened poverty that they aren’t able to organize against you? All things being equal, industries are less likely to move to affluent communities than those of lower income, and even with income held constant, research has shown that race is still a factor in these siting decisions. This creates what we call sacrifice zones, places of poverty that are exposed to multiple forms of pollution, places we have largely agreed as a society to turn a blind eye to.
CA: Let’s talk about your work with the EPA. For folks that don’t necessarily know what the EPA does or if you are the kind of person that sees government regulation as something that’s not so good, what is the relevance of the EPA in the daily life of the average American?
SS: I think people would be hard-pressed to point to any evidence that the Clean Air and Clean Water acts have not improved their lives. I was just reading a Yale study that showed at the cost of $100 per person per year that water pollution has fallen substantially in the 1970’s and cited clean water grants to states for updating infrastructure as playing a significant role in that.
The EPA is also the mechanism by which the government cleans up toxic sites. According to the US Census, 104 million people, or 1 in 3 Americans, live near a brownfield. Research just came out that for every dollar invested in a brownfield (cleanup), we get $16 dollars back in economic development. The EPA benefits include not just our enjoyment of the environment and our health and our ability to exist on this planet, but also as an economic driver.
Big picture: we need air to breathe, water to drink, a healthy environment to live in. The EPA supports our rights to that.
CA: What is something you wish people understood about the EPA?
SS: The EPA budget is $8.267 (FY 2017) billion dollars, but nearly half of our money goes to state, local, and nonprofit agencies. Those grants go to support infrastructure through sustainable development, green infrastructure, grants for technology, job training, investing in alternative energy, and economic development.
So when people say we need to cut federal funding because the states need more freedom and flexibility, that’s ignoring the fact that is exactly what the EPA does. Their budget is less than the Department of the Interior, the Centers for Disease Control, and Housing and Urban Development. Since the Reagan administration, The EPA has had to be a very efficient agency and very fiscally responsible and transparent. If you believe that state and local governments can do the work of the EPA or do it better, the EPA of supports that idea by providing this funding to those organizations.
CA: Do you think part of the scrutiny is because it’s been a long time, 40 plus years since the Clean Air and Water Acts were made into law? Do you think that’s why people might not think the EPA is necessary?
SS: Oh certainly! I think it’s natural to take these sort of things for granted. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the part of the Voting Rights Act that gave the federal government oversight of states with a history of racial discrimination. Their rationale was that those oversights were no longer needed. However, the people who actually lived through segregation are saying that those laws were put in place for a reason and some of those issues still persist.
I think the other part of the issue is the narrative. Since the 1980’s there has been a sort of attack on any and all regulation, and with that, a demonizing of the EPA as just paper-pushing bureaucrats. The great successes and positive economic and environmental impacts just aren’t highlighted.
CA: Why do you think this has become so polarized? You would think that clean air, clean water, a safe environment, would be a pretty common goal for all Americans, regardless of party affiliation.
SS: It’s really a matter of framing and the conversation has shifted to a contest between regulation and the free market. I think industry has been winning the framing contest in shaping the EPA as an overburdening, job-killing regulator. It’s troubling that “we” who are pro-environment say “how could you not care about clean or clean water”. It’s not about that. We need to shift the conversation back to how protecting the environment will contribute to a robust economy. Van Jones and others have championed that building a green economy by rebuilding our infrastructure and investing in clean technology will build our overall economy.
CA: There’s been a lot of new policies proposed by the EPA, both from the new director and from Congress. What of those policies have you most worried?
SS: One thing that really worries me about Pruitt, is when he said that he is really looking forward to working with stakeholders, he cited farmers and industry, but he didn’t mention local communities, who have a right to be at the table as interested parties. So what worries me is that he see no value in engaging the public on the environment. That to this day, EPA officials aren’t allowed to present or post things on their website, which really troubles me because it is taxpayer money that supports the work they do
The other thing I am concerned about is that they want to cut research and development budget by 50%. The EPA really is a world leader in the work that they do. So while I am concerned about public engagement, I’m concerned about community representation, if we destroy the EPA’s ability to conduct science, we’re not going to rebuild that when we get a new president. The leading researchers in their fields if they haven’t already left, are going to leave and universities are not receiving funding for their programs. They are destroying the ability for the EPA do to science, and I can’t help but put that on the top. It will have worldwide ramifications.
CA: Let’s say you were the administer of the EPA and you had a rubber stamp in Congress. What area do you think the EPA needs to do more work in?
SS: We can all say it together: climate change! I think we need to pay attention to what’s going on in California right now with their cap and trade, which was originally a Republican idea. I don’t want to necessarily be an advocate for cap and trade because whoever can afford the permits can still pollute, but we need to figure out a nationwide way to regulate carbon. Recently there was Republican a bill proposing a $40 per ton carbon tax, but that’s much too low.
In the realm of environmental justice, sacrifice zones we discussed earlier experience multiple forms of pollution. So we need regulation that limits the amount of pollution in any one place. A state’s environmental health can be fine as an average, but our (individual) health doesn’t work as an average. My health doesn’t improve because it’s less polluted in Vermont. We need to talk about the average of more localized areas.
We also need research on the cumulative effects of living in areas with concentrated pollution. We know what the limits are for cadmium exposure and benzene exposure, but what does it mean if you exposed to both at or near those limits for 20 years of your life? Right now I think environmental health professionals are doing their best, but we need more researching on cumulative impacts and regulation needs to follow.
CA: If people do care about keeping their air and water clean and are passionate about what is happening to the environment and climate change, what is something that they can do to get involved?
SS: The framing of the conversation is making a big difference. It’s easy for the people to treat environmental issues as a fringe movement, to act like it’s only the highly educated or hairy-footed liberals who are caring about this stuff. So I encourage people to think about what a healthy environment means to them. And share that with their elected officials! Highlight the fact that they are using our tax dollars. They work for us, they have a responsibility to us, and we should let them know that our priority is a clean and safe environment.
I would also just say to try to be informed. The whole climate change deniers say that there are two sides to the conversation when that is not the case. People should inform themselves of the science based facts. Lastly, I can’t help but encourage people to reduce their impacts. Finding alternative means of transportation goes a long way.